Four plus four equals great music

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra presents ‘An Evening of Strings with the Mendelssohns’

4 minute read
An instrumental monument: The DSO string players in Mendelssohn’s Octet. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)
An instrumental monument: The DSO string players in Mendelssohn’s Octet. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)

For its February 18 Chamber Concert, Delaware Symphony tapped eight of its players for An Evening of Strings with the Mendelssohns, a delicious foray into the string repertoire.

Finally, Fanny to the fore

First was the String Quartet in E-flat Major (1834) by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847). Fanny is most often cited as Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister (which she was), something that devalues her compositional excellence and range (she wrote 460 pieces) and keyboard artistry. Members of the DSO ensemble (violinists Luigi Mazzocchi and Stefan Xhori, violist Ruth Frazier, and cellist Mark Ward) gave an elegant, thoughtful performance of this confident exploratory work.

Its four movements begin with a melodic lament that moves to a slow fugue. The second (Allegretto) section’s swift, charming pizzicato conclusion leads into the soul of the work, a third movement where intervals descend like waterfalls. Underneath the melodies of the fourth movement (Allegro molto vivace) is a perpetual-motion-like continuo filled with determination and what might even be called fury. Mazzocchi and Frazier were especially notable for their beautiful work on violin and viola, respectively.

Because of the resistance in the 19th century to women to pursuing careers (in performance or composition or really anything), Felix published some of Fanny’s works under his name so they could be heard. This beautiful and polished string quartet raises the sad realization that she wasn’t (and still is not) fully recognized for her great gifts.

Challenging the work of a lifetime

Nestled between Fanny and Felix was a work by a woman currently (and aptly) both recognized and celebrated. Entre’acte was written in 2011 by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982), the American composer whose work seems to be everywhere right now. Shaw was inspired to compose it after hearing a Haydn string quartet performance. Its two movements (Minuet and Trio) are, in the composer’s words, “riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further.”

Here, the ensemble (by choice or serendipity?) was four women—violinists Lisa Vaupel and Yehong Xiong, violist Elizabeth Jaffe, and cellist Naomi Gray. In the Minuet (the first of two movements), Shaw makes melody from chords and repetition, interspersing thrilling bursts of harmonics to break up the chordal structure. And in the Trio, a striking pizzicato passage employs a similar technique that makes melody from rhythm.

Shaw’s writing is edge-of-the-seat invigorating, with frequent switchbacks between spikey modernism tempered unexpectedly with almost-baroque interludes. She writes in and out of and around current and previous musical contexts. And because she’s also a singer (with Roomful of Teeth, for whom she wrote the Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices) there is a vocal quality to even the non-melodic passages.

Here and in her other works, Shaw asks the musicians—who spend an artistic lifetime mastering how to play together—to perform out of sync, and this ensemble (led by Vaupel on first violin) masterfully realized her multiple challenges, playing with immediacy and verve.

An instrumental monument

The capstone of the concert was the remarkable Octet in E-flat Major by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). It’s hard to address this work without gushing, whether you’re a listener or a player. The four-movement piece was written in 1825 (when the composer was 16!) as a gift for his violin and viola teacher Eduard Ritz. But there is nothing immature about this magnificent piece, filled with juicy harmonies and modulations that seem at once unexpected yet totally natural.

This elegant room favors higher strings: the DSO chamber ensemble at the Gold Ballroom. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)
This elegant room favors higher strings: the DSO chamber ensemble at the Gold Ballroom. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)

It is scored for two string quartets—four violins, two violas, and two cellos—and how exciting it was to see the eight DSO musicians stride onto the concert platform and settle in for a work that is (in every string player’s purview) an instrumental monument.

The musical expectation would be an antiphonal set-up, with each quartet playing as a unit. But that’s not what Mendelssohn does. As well as magically emerging solo lines, there are duos or trios (or more) across the ensemble: The first violin might play with the second cello, for instance, who is sitting on the group’s other side. This transverse partnering makes the work enormously exciting for the players and also for the audience, engaged in a guessing game of “who is playing together now.”

Remarkable works

As meltingly beautiful melodic lines and motifs are passed among the players, music is dealt out like cards at a table, and there are so many memorable moments it’s impossible to cite them. It was striking throughout, though, to hear rhythmic and melodic previews of Mendelssohn’s famous Midsummer Night’s Dream Concert Overture, which he wrote just a year later.

The DSO octet created an exciting ensemble feeling and realized the orchestral aura of the work with joie di vivre, as virtuosic passages rose seamlessly out of a wall of lush sound. The elegant room (generally hospitable for chamber music) did seem to favor the higher strings: not by any fault of the players, the cellos sometimes seemed dimmed. And it was interesting that both Mendelssohn works were in the same key.

There was heavy street construction outside that periodically punctuated the concert, especially in the Shaw (where it sometimes fit quite well). But the noise was a reminder of the harsh world outside that everyone left behind to experience these three remarkable works.

What, When, Where

An Evening of Strings with the Mendelssohns. Fanny Mendelssohn, String Quartet; Caroline Shaw, Entr’acte (String Quartet); Felix Mendelssohn, Octet for Strings. Luigi Mazzocchi, Lisa Vaupel, Stefan Xhori, and Yehong Xiong, violins; Elizabeth Jaffe and Ruth Frazier, violas; Naomi Gray and Mark Ward, cellos. The Delaware Symphony Orchestra Chamber Concert. February 18, 2020 in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel Du Pont, 42 W. 11th Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 656-7441 or

The Hotel duPont is ADA-compliant and fully accessible. Chairs in the Gold Ballroom are easily arranged to accommodate wheelchair seating.

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